Condo Fatigue on the Upper West Side

Residents and preservationists have tried to stop three new towers, but so far, the developers are winning.

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Residents on the Upper West Side have never been shy about their opposition to new developments that they believe clash with the area’s prewar sensibilities. The neighborhood’s latest real estate battles include three luxury condos that have prompted petitions, opposition groups and lawsuits.

Preservationists argue that the proposed towers simply don’t belong in an area known for its stately prewar apartment buildings and townhouses. They also take issue with the way developers have taken advantage of loopholes in the zoning code to maximize the height of their projects and consequently their profits.

The three contested buildings include: a 69-story condo at 50 West 66th Street where construction has been stalled by legal challenges since 2019; a 52-story condo at 200 Amsterdam where a judge ordered the developer last year to remove the top 20 floors, but is now slated to open at full height this summer; and a 20-story cantilevered building on 91st Street that neighbors oppose for its mass and design.

Despite the lawsuits and protests, so far, the developers seem to be winning.

From the perspective of Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the neighborhood preservation group Landmark West, all three buildings “run cross grain to the fabric of the neighborhood.”

“Together,” he said, “they underscore an underlying disregard for context and community while spotlighting the many loopholes in our zoning resolution and the failure of city agencies to uphold zoning intent.”

50 West 66th Street

The proposed 775-foot tower at 50 West 66th Street would likely become the tallest building on the Upper West Side, but construction was halted after the foundation was poured some time in 2019. The city’s Department of Buildings ordered the developer, Extell Development, to take down a crane last month that had stood silent there for nearly two years.

Located half a block from Central Park and within the Special Lincoln Square District, it would be near other tall buildings, but its height would be rivaled only by Extell’s other projects below the park on Billionaire’s Row: One57, a 75-story condominium, is 1,004 feet, and its next door neighbor, the brand-new Central Park Tower, is 1,550 feet.

Upper West Siders have objected to Extell’s apparent march northward and to the 66th Street building’s design. Extell pushed the height to 775 feet by creating mechanical spaces with unusually high ceilings, known as voids, which would not count against a building’s maximum height, thus allowing the developer to increase the building’s overall height, and therefore the value of the upper floors.

In 2016, Extell submitted a permit application for a building that would be 262 feet tall, a height more in keeping with the area. The developer subsequently pieced together five different parcels to expand the building site and also purchased air rights from a nearby armory. Then in the summer of 2018, Extell submitted a revised design in which Snohetta, an Oslo-based architecture firm, included a massive, 160-foot mechanical void on the 18th floor of the building, as well as two other smaller mechanical voids, in order to achieve a height of 775 feet.

Chris Giordano, president of the West 64th-67th Street Block Association, called it a bait-and-switch. “Even if you take away the issue of shadows on your neighborhood and a skyline scarred by a building that’s too tall,” he said, “we still find it to be immoral. We want there to be reasonable development, but that’s not what they’re doing.”

Two groups, Landmark West and the City Club of New York, a nonprofit focused on smart urban development, filed challenges with the Board of Standards and Appeals, opposing the voids and arguing that the building’s height presented a hazard for the city’s fire department. Each challenge moved on to the state Supreme Court, where City Club argued and won its case (which Extell is now trying to appeal) and Landmark West is awaiting a court date to argue its latest appeal.

When the city’s Department of Buildings asked Extell to amend its design in the spring of 2019, the developer came back with a proposal that still includes three mechanical spaces that together reduce the total height for mechanical spaces by just 16 feet, from 192 to 176 feet.

The opposition groups are claiming at least a partial victory out of this continuing saga: In 2019, the New York City Council voted to close the zoning loophole that allowed excessive voids.

“This isn’t nipping it in the bud, but it is making it a little more difficult,” Mr. Khorsandi said. “Billionaire’s Row is 15 years old now, and people are just now starting to wise up to what’s happening there,” he said. “They’re bogarting the sky and pushing away the public.”

200 Amsterdam

At 200 Amsterdam, a 52-story condominium on 69th Street, the developers purchased unused development rights not just from adjacent buildings but from multiple neighboring lots, creating a 39-sided zoning lot that critics described as “gerrymandered” to get the 668-foot height they wanted.

SJP Properties and Mitsui Fudosan America have spent the last two years in court and appear to have won out. The Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York, which filed the original lawsuit in 2018, claimed that the building should be scaled down since the original zoning lot wouldn’t allow such a tall building. In February 2020, a State Supreme Court judge sided with the community organizations and ordered the developer to remove the top 20 floors.

But the developers appealed and won a reprieve last March. Both community groups, backed by many local public officials, have filed another appeal, but despite the ongoing legal battle, the project is expected to open to residents this summer. One of the 10 penthouses, priced at $17.5 million, sold this spring.

“If they get away with it, that means they can do anything,” said Olive Freud, founder of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development. “The decision could affect an awful lot of housing in New York from here on out.”

The Upper West Side is one of the most in-demand and expensive housing markets in the city, but because of its compact location between two major parks, there is little room for new construction. What is under construction now though, according to Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel, an appraisal firm, is reminiscent of a period in the 1980s when many developers rushed to build on the Upper West Side and sought out sites outside the neighborhood’s historic districts.

“What’s different this time is that we have towers that are contrasting the existing skyline,” he said. “The developer can rationalize the size because they’re able to build higher and have more apartments with more views.”

Era

Other new condominium developments bring more modest changes to the neighborhood’s skyline. Broadway’s commercial corridor, for example, will be dotted with nearly a dozen new buildings, most of which will hover at about 200 feet tall, or 20 stories, which is allowed by the existing zoning.

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The Era condominium, at 91st Street and Broadway, sparked local debate last year over its cantilever design. Some neighbors believe it isn’t compatible with the Upper West Side’s more classical architecture. Credit…Rendering by MOSO Studio

The most controversial design in this group is Era, the 20-story cantilevered building at 91st Street, where the developers, Adam America Real Estate and Northlink Capital, purchased air rights over the property next door to build wider instead of taller.

The building, which topped out in June, will have 57 units ranging from two- to five-bedrooms when it opens next spring. The project was designed by ODA New York, and will have oversized windows framed by angled limestone blocks — a nod to the use of limestone on other area buildings.

Eran Chen, a longtime Upper West Sider and the founder and executive director of ODA, said that the cantilever allows for more apartments to be included at the top of the building as opposed to the typical tower cake construction, where the building narrows as it ascends. “We’re creating a new typology for New York City,” he said, calling it “inverted living.”

In early 2020, a local petition made the rounds, collecting over 350 signatures against the cantilever design. Wayne Kabak, a spokesman for the Cantilever Opposition Group, said, “We basically feel it’s an eyesore that doesn’t fit within the look of a neighborhood that’s mostly defined by classical architecture.”

When asked about criticism of the design, Omri Sachs, co-founder of Adam America and a local resident himself, said, “I do think people jumped to conclusions in this case. Yes, the building is bold architecturally but it does blend into the street and is contextual. Sometimes it’s a question of aesthetics.”

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